We’ve reached episode 9, and the climax of the two-part adaptation of Paul Cornell’s Who novel Human Nature. A brief review follows, backed up with a gigantic (hopefully not too rambling) discussion of the episode’s finale and how it impacts on the character of the Doctor. Fear the spoilers…
As I said last week, high expectations are dangerous things. They can leave you disappointed as a result of the smallest problems, especially in the case of ‘The Family of Blood’, which only fell short of my expectations by not completely blowing me away, and instead only being very, very good. New Who has given itself a hell of a target to beat in last year’s ‘Girl in the Fireplace’, and while the two-part adaptation of Human Nature might not quite have scaled those heights, it’s still the kind of drama that makes me want to pinch myself to check that I’m not dreaming, and that it really is being broadcast at peak time on a Saturday night. Dealing with themes of sacrifice and social responsibility, as well as dragging up the horrors of World War One and making them relevant and resonant, it was a beautiful piece of work only marred by a couple of over-directed moments and Murray Gold going for bombast when something quieter would have been far more effective (The ‘flash-forwards’ to John Smith and Joan’s life together somehow managed to feel more genuinely affecting to me in last week’s teaser, accompanied by more haunting music, than in the episode itself). What he was thinking with the sleigh-ride music accompanying the march of the Scarecrows was anyone’s guess…
Despite any of the small churlish niggles I may have experienced, I don’t want to talk about them, or about the fact that Tennant pulled off his best performance in the series so far, or that Freema Agyeman continues to be a breath of fresh air and a terrific companion, or that this season, even with the mess that was Evolution of the Daleks, actually feels like Who, rather than the program that was masquerading as it last season. What I want to talk about is the climax, and my feelings about the changes that are coming over the character of the Doctor as a result of the events of the new series.
The finale of ‘The Family of Blood’, with the Doctor entrapping young girls in mirrors and catapulting villains into stars, is definitely one of the series most genuinely out-there moments, and it’s in keeping with a movement that’s been in the character ever since the end of the classic series, and was expanded further in the New Adventures which, even without the Human Nature adaptation, have been widely held as the ‘prototype’ version of New Who. In an attempt to inject mystery back into the character, the Seventh Doctor was gradually turned very dark in his last few stories, with Sylvester McCoy going from gurning opposite an evil version of Bertie Basset, to one of the most disturbing scenes in Who, as the Doctor deliberately destroys his companion’s faith in him so that she doesn’t accidentally prevent a plan going ahead. The Doctor was recast as a game player, an arch-manipulator who’d happily sacrifice others for the greater good. In fact, Paul Cornell took this about as far as it could go in his novel Love and War, where then-companion Ace falls in love with a traveller called Jan, and almost the entire book is the Doctor manipulating events so that Jan has to sacrifice his life, leading to Ace leaving the TARDIS in disgust. For those who’d been following the show, and the previous novels (especially Cornell’s debut novel Timewyrm: Revelation), seeing the Doctor/Companion team melt down so spectacularly was genuinely powerful, and despite the obvious need to go for eventual closure, I couldn’t help wishing that they’d let the story stand there, instead of bringing Ace back as a slightly older, more battle-hardened and less interesting character five books later.
It was this manipulative, arrogant side of the Doctor that I disliked, and which eventually turned me off reading the New Adventures, only returning for the occasional books (one of which was Human Nature, which I was incredibly grateful for). While I put this down as a simple dislike of the book series’ attempt to turn the nature of the series more adult– especially in novels like Cat’s Cradle: Warhead, which showed clearly how utterly wrong a Battlestar Galactica-style adult re-imagining of Who would be, what I wasn’t expecting was this to filter into the new series to such a dramatic extent, and be presented as an important part of the character.
Having grown up reading the classic Terrance Dicks, I’ve got the ‘never cruel or cowardly’ description of the Doctor written into my idealised version of the character, and it’s certainly true that, to all intents and purposes, the Doctor never really changes during the classic series, and it’s only when the production team tries to force change (Let’s have the Doctor go a bit mad! Let’s give him an incredibly colourful costume!) that it all goes wrong. Watch enough of the classic series, and you soak up the idea that the Doctor has certain values- there are things he will do, and there are things he won’t do (which is one of the reasons why the shot of John Smith holding the rifle in ‘The Family of Blood’ feels so fundamentally disturbing and wrong- we know that the Doctor wouldn’t even pick the gun up, and the idea that Smith might go too far is genuinely scary). There are times when the old series bent these ideas- especially in the succession of ‘dark, gritty’ stories in the Eighties, which revolved around Sam Peckinpah-style bloodbaths where hardly a character was left standing- but for the most part, they were there, and they were reliable.
It therefore came as a bit of a surprise when the Doctor came back, and turned out to be a bit of a vengeful sod. It wasn’t so much the obvious darkening of the character as a result of his experiences in the Time War, or his decision to let Cassandra perish in ‘End of the World’– it was the treatment of Adam in ‘The Long Game’ that set alarm bells ringing. Now, the basic idea of The Long Game was an interesting one- setting up a companion who isn’t up to the time-travel thing, and who tries to use it for financial gain- but the fact that the Doctor not only dumps Adam back at home, but in effect punishes him by deliberately leaving the ‘brain hatch’ implant in his head rather took me aback. The fact that it was also played for laughs wasn’t something I liked either– Adam had been deliberately engineered as an unlikeable, ‘bad’ character, rather than simply an unwise or foolish one, simply so that we laugh at him when he’s left trying to avoid hearing a clicking noise so his brain doesn’t get exposed. I tried to imagine any of the other Doctors doing something as deliberately vindictive as that… and while I might be mistaken, I don’t think they’d do it. Preventing Adam from seeing any more of the stuff he so desperately wants to see should be enough– but it isn’t, and it was a turn in the character that made me stop, and pause for thought.
As the show progresses, the Doctor has been painted as a force of nature, someone who it’s wise not to get on the wrong side, and the vengeful side has continued to show up in a variety of different ways. Lest we forget, one of the first things the Tenth Doctor does is kill someone– okay, it’s a rampaging alien warrior who’s trying to kill him, and he uses the whimsical method of doing it it with a satsuma, but he’s still just unreservedly taken a life, saying “No second chances”, and then goes on to bring down Harriet Jones for the morally dark but at least understandable decision of bringing down the Sycorax ship with Torchwood’s new Death Star Laser toy (thus ending the supposed ‘Golden Age’, and possibly creating a power vacuum that might factor into the third season’s climax in interesting ways…). It’s as if they’re pulling the Doctor in two seperate directions– in certain respects, the Ninth and Tenth Doctor have been even more human than ever, while at the same time also being almost superhuman forces of justice whose rage tends to flatten anything within range. There’s a judgemental streak to the Tenth Doctor that doesn’t always sit right with me, and feels at odds with the compassionate, non-violent nature of the character (I guess, this is partly a result of growing up during the Baker and Davison eras)– things change, and it’s very possible that the original version of the Doctor, who is essentially a melodramatic character, wouldn’t work in the far more dramatically based new series, but the factoring in of this tendency towards vengeance into the morality of the Doctor is something that bothers me– not so much that it’s there, but that nobody ever calls him on it. It’s a sign of his alien nature, like in ‘The Runaway Bride’, when he looks imperiously down on the dying Empress of Racnoss and refuses to help, but it’s only there to emphasise his difference and ‘otherness’. It’s was used powerfully in ‘Dalek’, but since then, it’s still turning up, and nobody ever suggests that it’s wrong, or that there might be a better way– which was one of the reasons why I was so surprised by the ending of ‘Evolution of the Daleks’ where, in a scene that says everything about my idealised version of Who, the Doctor confronts the last of the Daleks, and this time offers to help. It’s an act of compassion, rather than destruction, and I can’t help wishing that this kind of thing happenned more in New Who, as it’s the kind of thing that makes Who unique in its worldview.
All of which brings us, after an extremely long time, back to the climax of Human Nature, a sequence that establishes the mythic, frightening nature of the Doctor far more effectively than anything ever managed during the last few years of the classic version of the show. It’s clearly showing the difference between John Smith and the Doctor- pushing the Doctor’s reactions up to an almost biblical level, and turning him into a character of myth, rather than the wandering odd-job man and adventurous scientist he’s often been painted as before. The sequence has a fairy-tale edge, and almost plays like something you’d be more likely to find in an Arabian Nights tale or an issue of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. It’s also a sequence that I can almost see fitting in with the William Hartnell version of the character, particularly in the first few episodes of the series, where the Doctor is a menacing, crotchety bugger who’d happily smash a caveman’s skull in if it meant getting back to the TARDIS quicker.
On it’s own, the sequence is creepy, disturbing, and oddly powerful. Taken in the context of the rest of the series – and even the rest of the story it’s a part of – it’s a different story, and feeds into the conflict between Who’s unchangeable nature as a sci-fi adventure show, and RTD’s looser, more fantasy-based approach to the storytelling. Once you’ve got characters imprisoning villains in mirrors or transforming them into scarecrows, you’ve firmly crossed the line from science into magic (especially since the Doctor’s never showcased this kind of power before)- but the trouble is, you can’t just hide Who’s sci-fi identity in a box and hope it’ll go away. Give a character seemingly god-like powers, and you start wondering why he doesn’t do this kind of thing more often, and in this case you’re left with a rather more significant problem. Namely– if the Doctor could do this kind of thing, why didn’t he do it before he started? It’s described as an act of ‘kindness’ on the Family, hiding on Earth as a human until the Family’s three month life-span is up, rather than unleashing the full force of his retribution– but as well as pulling the threat out from underneath the story, it doesn’t explain why the Doctor is (or appears) genuinely scared of the Family in the first episode. It also means that, however indirectly, everyone who died as a result of the Family wouldn’t have had to if the Doctor had just gone ahead and done whatever he needed to do to stop them, and his vengeance ends up feeling majorly disproportionate, at least in logical terms. In Who villainy terms, the Family actually generate a pretty mild body count- the Doctor’s definitely encountered villains who’ve caused more devastation, and he’s never been tempted to get medieval to this extent before.
Of course, he might be sublimating his rage at what he had to go through as John Smith- but it’s here that the Doctor almost becomes the villain of the piece. After all, despite his assurances that ‘John Smith’ is still inside him, the personality that’s created as John Smith essentially has to die in order for the Doctor to be ‘rebooted’, and if everything had gone according to plan, all that would have changed would be that John Smith wouldn’t have known anything until the metaphorical guillotine fell. Maybe John Smith being forced to deliberately sacrifice himself is what the Doctor’s reacting to, but there’s still the sense of distance, of standing in judgement, and of a degree of arrogance to the Doctor that only occasionally gets pointed out. Leaving the Family trapped on Earth, doomed to live out their last month and then die would have been just as suitable a revenge- suspending them in an eternal living death is, frankly, a few steps past extreme. As with much of New Who, it becomes a matter of faith- of taking the emotional part of the story on board, and not trying to add up the constituent parts that surround it.
It’s just yet another sign of how amazingly important the stories that you experience can end up influencing you, and shaping how you view the world. The Doctor was a vital companion for me, for a while- he was someone who showed exactly how limitless the world of sci-fi could be, and I can still remember walking home from school, desperately hoping that I’d hear that familiar wheezing groaning sound, see the TARDIS appear, and get to leap in and disappear off on adventures. Sometimes, watching New Who is like watching an old, trusted friend behaving in a deeply unsettling way– but, for the most part, I’m still glad that it’s back, and while the third season hasn’t always been the strongest, it does seem to be turning into the most consistently watchable series of New Who yet.
There’s just a handful of moments where I miss my old friend, and wish he’d treat the world a little more kindly.